An Arts Policy For Scotland

SIr James Guthrie, ‘To Pastures New’ (1883) – a unique composition, from the low horizon linking girl with geese, to the goose cut off at the image edge to express movement.

It took some weeks to get my head around a document extolling art for all, what should be reformed and what should be encouraged. I have always believed everybody should be give the opportunity to participate in the arts, but the most talent given the support to develop and flourish. Giving consideration to things inadequate in our cultural Diaspora is easy until you have to think about ‘why’, and what good it will do, not the least of which is actually find ways to keep talent in Scotland and not see the best moving elsewhere to make a living. Actors, directors and playwrights go south, painters are ambivalent but know London critics and galleries sell talent best of all. Writers tend to stay here, but successful novelists, like Alistair MacLean, toddle off to tax exiles.

Anyhow, I put my thoughts on paper. One could subtitle this paper, ‘Not a proper job’. Freezing to death at 6am on a winter’s morning in Lanarkshire, waiting for the crew to set up for a drama scene shot outside a rural pub, holding a paper cup of coffee for warmth, a lorry driver shouted, “Why don’t you wankers get a proper job?!” Ah, philistines are everywhere. Moaning about there being too many arts festivals is a Scottish hobby. Edinburgh folk are apt to grumble at the world coming to their city every International Festival.

I suggest we should have a celebration of Scotland’s greats, let the world know who our best are, rather than hoping the non-Scottish director of the Edinburgh International Arts Festival might include a few ‘local’ things in the August extravaganza if we doff our cap. In publishing my thoughts on the arts, what we have worth cherishing, what we need to enrich our culture, I must add a regret; I am reduced to exercising my intellect these days, others do the work. The loss of artistic society one has in a team on a project is greatly missed. Tomorrow, I’ll change the world, right after I have had a good breakfast.


Placing our palm in the earth tells people we exist

A fable taught when a child was the story of the grasshopper and the ants. The grasshopper plays sweet fiddle music all summer for the enjoyment of a colony of industrious ants storing food and building homes. When winter’s hardships arrive he is refused food and shelter only to be lectured about the virtue of hard work prepares us for tomorrow. That is how our society treats the arts when budgets tighten. Other nations increase support. They acknowledge the arts bring pleasure and happiness, and they heal. Great art is an ambassador for a nation’s culture. It fosters global friendships.

Begin at the beginning

Education is prone to churn out conformity; rather we should cultivate the best instincts in human kind. This is conceded by most thinking people. One begins with the inalienable right of every individual to develop from opportunity offered. To confine learning to existing job opportunities, education as a sausage factory, is the state at the mercy of capital. The arts can create well-adjusted personalities, confident, articulate and imaginative, the very essence of human progress.

Primary Education

Everything begins at the primary level, everything. Inculcating an adventurous spirit in children, exploring by creativity, and co-operating with a friend or group, eradicates the fear of failure. The joys of construction are shared. There should be no such thing as failure, only experimentation. (The Montessori Method excels at this.) Failure teaches the child he or she is of less worth than their peers, that they are of limited ability.

Infant schools include art, dance, music and storytelling. Children should explore their indigenous culture and that of other societies, concepts that connect people the world over. (I include Gaelic culture.) Primary teachers usually key in work to the cycle of the seasons, but it is vital children make connections with the world immediately around them, the one that exists every day.

Take art as an example. Primary teachers are excellent as all-round teachers; few have any expertise in aesthetics. A peripatetic specialist is needed for that task. Bringing in a secondary art student is an answer. Let them teach lessons in the principles of art, why art is all around them, from colour and pattern, through design, to architecture. Teach children how aesthetics are important in everyday life, knowledge imparted without being over-complicated.

At an early age, through play and games, children are expert in imagining themselves as adults, pirates, ballet dancers, bus drivers, tigers, movie characters, and the like; the origins of theatre are there to develop. Exposure to arts and crafts is paramount if an individual is to see power not as superiority over others, but as learning by artistic creation or scientific discovery.

Children of this age are information sponges, they absorb without bias. Teaching without children knowing why they do it, is useless.

Secondary Education

The arts are, by their nature, anarchic and free flowing, like youth itself. The pioneering work of dominie A.S. Neil and his Summerhill School and his disciples John and Morag Aitkenhead with Kilquhanity House in Castle Douglas, demand a renaissance, where young adults are freed of adult coercion over subjects suppressed by rigid curricula. Free will spurs self-motivation.

In secondary education we should follow the same line of curiosity as primary education ditching the rigid lines of learning. Truth is important but imagination comes first. Leonardo da Vinci would have a lot of trouble adjusting to strict educational categories of subject matter. To him science and art were one and the same. In the fourth or fifth year a pupil ought to be free to specialise.

To know who plotted the death of Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots favoured musician, is of no great application. However, to understand the male psyche can give insight into human nature. The aggressive youth may find pleasure in the armed services as an adult – utilising the arts as a means of exploration can illicit others skills that will bring satisfaction as an adult.

Music must remain a staple of an education system. Venezuela provides the triumphant example of achievement from poor income backgrounds that result in callow youth’s enthusiasm to participate in orchestral music – see the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, often under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. We had a similar experiment gaining praise in Lanarkshire. A nationwide echo of their principles is the way forward to create Music Scotland. Let no one be put off by fear of scale.

Drama classes boost language and communication skills; music classes boost an understanding of mathematics and foster team work; dance exhilarates, modern dance innovates, painting, print making and sculpture teach the science of colour, design, creative use of earth’s materials, enhancing imagination that express new ways of seeing. Rothko’s colour-field canvasses taught us colours trigger emotions.

An educational system is usually aimed at usefulness. The arts free us to discover other possibilities.

Filmed drama and documentary

The moving image is the form of storytelling of the modern age. The novelist and writer, the auteur, cinematographer, designer, composer, musician, digital magician and animator come together through filmed drama and documentary.

Alas, Scotland is locked into the British film industry, to a great extent the English film industry. Understandably, it promotes English culture. The chief among it are known to reject Scottish subject matter as ‘not commercial’, leaving Scots filmmakers at an acute disadvantage, forced out of Scotland to find work. This is unacceptable.

Scotland has a cottage film industry. We remain a country more often used as a backdrop for films of other nations, than one making movies.

The Norwegian model is one to study. The Norwegian government gives an annual tranche of money to existing film production houses, and a large portion of cinema ticket profits go straight to the production company. Income and government funds are conjoined and recycled. This is a standard Scotland would do well to implement.

By this method Norway, a small country like Scotland, is able to produce a dozen films a year without worrying about international sales or subtitles. Producer’s films find an audience on Norwegian television, paid for the right to transmit their films. Scotland does not have a broadcaster actively involved in encouraging movie making. If writers, directors and producers want to see their work shown in the UK or abroad, we require a resident expert in international sales, with local cinemas guaranteeing exhibition of home grown material, even after Scotland has established its own broadcasting company investing in film.

Scotland can emulate the Norwegian model, our stories expressed in Gaelic, dialect, or in Scots-English.

The Appurtenances

Creative Scotland, labours under a faux commercial role. It dominates those that cannot survive without subsidy, and new talent looking for start-up funds. The decisions it makes are hit and miss. Some decisions are inexplicable. Sitting in an office dishing out rules and application papers is bureaucratic. The old Scottish Arts Council had a policy where an arts officer turned up at a client’s door or event, unannounced. There is need of an ‘Academy of Arts’ that dispenses funds, and also elevates its practitioners, no London critics needed to decide on standards or values. Creative Scotland is a stop gap that wants a rethink.

Corporate sponsorship is a dragon consuming all before it. Big business reduces creativity to consumerism. A new Scotland can discipline corporate ownership of the arts. Ditch pick-the-popular sponsorship in favour of a national accumulated fund – sponsors duly thanked and publicised. Take a modest portion of mandatory tax from businesses. Together with a wholly Scottish Lottery Fund, (still a reserved fund) a ‘National Fund’ rids us of the mendicant culture where only the strongest survive. Let arts activity free itself from stifling commercial imposition, wary of radicalism.

Art colleges moved to installation work some years ago, ‘concepts’, encouraged by second-rate UK prizes. (An installation caused the first fire in Glasgow’s Mackintosh building!) Art schools exploit this fashion to save on painting and drawing materials. Art students are graduating who cannot draw or paint. They know nothing of the process of artistic creation. The pendulum has swung too far one way. The principles of art are sacrosanct; those skills take years to acquire. Nurture the gifted, not the lazy keen to become an ‘artist’ on the back of shallow concepts. And in that regard, we should see stronger support than now for the guardian of Scottish art, the Royal Scottish Academy.

In Summation

Education is the province of the political charlatan. Opponents of Scotland’s rights carp and bite at the edges knowing there is never enough money to alter things, their moans and groans are safe. The proposals set out here for the arts in education and the community are not expensive. At the other end, the proposals for filmmaking can be organised in a way that avoids high financial risk.

Above all, a government that embraces the arts embraces human aspiration, a place where we gain a sense of ourselves as a great civilisation. A spirit of adventure and liberty will bear fruit in an atmosphere of consistent and sustained national support of the arts. Scotland, be bold!

Gareth Wardell © Copyright March 2021


NOTE : For readers interested in a constitution for Scotland:

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7 Responses to An Arts Policy For Scotland

  1. Grouse Beater says:

    Who better to write this document?

    All great philosophers know the importance of arts in education. Many of our artists work out for us questions we didn’t know how to articulate. They give us space to think in shared realms of creativity that are purely playful. They bring us collectively, inspiration and vision. A good arts policy helps a nation grow. A managerial arts policy or a poor arts policy separates people and keeps some privileged and others disadvantaged.

    Who better that you, Gareth, to write this for Scotland?

    As an aside, two things. I will never forget the opening scenes of Brond. The fact that they took place on Kelvinbridge and were so stunning… And the overall story was so challenging and yet compelling… still gives me the creeps I now own a first edition of FL’s book.

    It was grand to hear you on with Roddy on Barrhead boy and explaining the genesis of that work. Respect, Gareth, … That was damn fine work.

    Here’s a meandering story for you to give you an idea of aspects of what we are up against. I ran an educational video conferencing company and over 10 years a major client was Glasgow City Council. I am immensely proud that we developed a way of putting a business quality video conferencing unit in every secondary school in Glasgow. These things had remote control cameras, with pan, tilt and zoom and reset positions. And great microphones. We linked them with a breakout box at learning teaching Scotland, so that communications could be linked with the outside world safely. (It was an IP to ISDN gateway… So nobody broke in on it). And we linked the outside end up with the UK universities IP network – which was managed. That meant we could link with all university trusted educational content providers. In fact, my company became one of those.

    We had a studio in the Melting Pot in Edinburgh, where we could link real-world content into schools, and could set up broadcast conditions in places such as the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. One thing we did was we linked a BP portrait award winner with 3 Glasgow Higher Art classes, one after another, around the city and the pupils showed work and the artist inspired them and was inspired by them. The great Ann Wallace, Education Officer at the Kelvingrov, shared a visiting artist with three Glasgow schools and it was a big success.

    We also had the wonderful Edinburgh Film Festival come to the Melting Pot and share access to a top Scottish Producer and a member of the British Board of Film Classification. The discussions they had with pupils in Lochend Academy Easterhouse were particularly riveting, covering films and games.

    I have too many stories. Suffice to say that the policy run nationally was no where near as successful as the Glasgow policy. They chose poor quality kit, a poor quality service, and did not find outreach. The whole educational videoconferencing policy then failed.

    I had some successes in Edinburgh… But nothing like the work we did in Glasgow. The most disappointing was in linking with the Edinburgh Festival. I went to one of their talks on the High At and asked them about linking in Edinburgh schools to rehearsals or interviews with artists or stage work in the city of Festivals. I was given an interview with the education officer at the EIF. We had a lot of ideas. There was no interest, and when we had answered all the perceived barriers… The one that floored me, the last one was…

    “But what if we did inspire all these youngsters to want to work in the arts? There isn’t even enough jobs to go around just now? Where would they work? We would just be setting them up to have an insecure future in a job-insecure environment.”

    And that was my end with the EIF. Not only not sharing the excitement of the world’s biggest arts festival with the state pupils of Edinburgh, but a desire to keep the talent among them ignorant of the kinds of jobs in arts they may want to try for. Whereas others… And we know mostly public school educated… Who could work for years for so little… Who had networks… Who had the right to access… They were more suitable.

    Too long a story, Gareth. But I thought you might recognise something in it. From where to where… From the achievement of Brond to the dismissal of state school pupils from the biggest cultural festival in the world.

    I wish I had met you instead of that crowd. Respect.


  2. diabloandco says:

    I am delighted the right man asked the right man to pen this policy.

    I always wondered what happened to the enthusiastic , imaginative primary child to change them into a sluggish , sullen secondary child and at fault has to be what is presented as education and the manner of that education.. Yes , it has improved over the years but as you point out squeeze a budget and the Arts will be first to suffer especially in education.

  3. Hugh Wallace says:


  4. Iain Patterson says:

    I left teaching Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh College of Art 13 years ago.
    The ECA had a huge tradition of teaching drawing – 3 days out of 5 for a Second Year Student.
    Now – nothing.
    David Hockney wrote a good piece about Art Schools –
    “When I was a student they taught us some hand and eye skills. The ‘Poetry’ was left to us”
    “Now they try to teach the Poetry”.

    Iain Patterson

  5. arayner1936 says:

    Some great ideas, though I’d like to see more emphasis on the Scots language.

    You hint at this with references to indigenous culture and using Gaelic, dialect and Scots-English but I think we need to go further. For many childen it is Scots that is the key to our culture and shapes how we think and feel.

    If we want to encourage our own culture, we need to tap into this at an early stage because people, especially children, are often more imaginative and creative in their own language than in the strait-jacket of correct English. Also it is something unique to Scotland. If we use Scots rhymes, stories and songs in infant shool and continue throughout the education system to respect the language children and young people already have, we will nourish something deep in the roots of our culture.

    I like what you say about Norway when talking of the Scottish film industry and the suggestions from the ‘heid-bummers’ that it is not commercial. I think we should ignore that and, like the Norwegians, have our own industry, reflecting our concerns in our way and using our own language. If it’s good enough, and why should it not be, it will be successful.

    If others need to market it with sub-titles, so be it, that’s up to them.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    I’m all for emphasis on the Scots language, but with a brief on the ‘arts’ and 900 words or so, I limited mention to a sentence, but you’re correct, language is the core of it all.

  7. arayner1936 says:

    Thank you. I had been reading about how our language and culture have been suppressed by our ‘colonial masters’.

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